Census Taker's Death Highlights Controversy

A 1955 cartoon depicts bare-chested, bearded country boys, wearing overalls and pointing their guns at a diminutive, bespectacled census taker. "It's OK Boys. You can tell him everything … He's the Census Man!" one of them tells the others, in what is part of a decennial phenomenon that is beginning again—the massive advertising and manpower effort to persuade Americans to take part in the U.S. Census. The old ad assures readers that census takers have no connections to the "revenooers," a reference to the Prohibition-era feds who cracked down on illegal production of alcohol. Back then, as now, there is hesitation and distrust of the census among the public.

But this time around, that fear may be reaching new levels. The Census Bureau just announced its largest advertising campaign ever—some $300 million—to urge Americans to do their constitutional duty and take part in the nationwide headcount. But the bureau has reason to worry: the U.S. is facing unprecedented homelessness and foreclosure rates; illegal immigrants are pledging a boycott of the census; conservatives claim it's rigged in favor of the Obama administration and perhaps even unconstitutional; and, for the first time in recent memory, census season has been kicked off not with a mailing, but a possible murder.

Census taker Bill Sparkman's naked body was found earlier this month near a rural Kentucky cemetery, his neck bound with a rope and the word "Fed" scrawled across his chest. The area where his body was discovered is remote, and is known as a hot spot for marijuana production. Friends of Sparkman had warned to him to be careful when heading out there for his job, "but he'd just shrug his shoulders," says friend Gilbert Acciardo. Having "Fed" written on his body has prompted the obvious question: was Sparkman killed in some frenzy of antigovernment rage? Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have warned of a dramatic spike in antigovernment militia activity.

While the SPLC sees little evidence of hate groups targeting the Census Bureau, there isn't much sympathy for Sparkman on those groups' Web sites. "I've seen census folks poking around on private property like they own everything in sight," posts one visitor to Stormfront.org, a white supremacist site. "Eastern Kentucky is probably the last place you'd want to do that." Another worries that the killing might free up the government to manipulate the census: "This could be a bad thing, they may just fore-go [sic] the count and make up the numbers they need to complete the total subversion of the Constitution." The nastiest comment posted? A Ku Klux Klan member aims for laughs for the one-liner "Hopefully someone remembered to subtract the census by one."

Those comments don't reflect the views of the wider public, which doesn't pay much attention to the census at all. But while for many Americans the census can seem like a boring triviality, for some political activists, it is a lightning rod for political protest. That's because everyone forgets about the census until we get hit with it each decade, "when it suddenly becomes a way of framing the political issues of the time," says census historian and University of Wisconsin professor Margo J. Anderson. (See census art and cartoons through the centuries compiled by Anderson here.) The 2010 census issues include immigration reform, same-sex marriage, and government invasion of privacy. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves admitted as much to Congress last week when he stressed that the poor economy and tensions over immigration could derail participation in the head count, which is primarily used to apportion House seats and distribute some $400 billion in federal aid. Groves pointed to foreclosures, families doubling up in single dwellings, increased homelessness, competing and incorrect news from the blogosphere, and the rise of Internet scamming as obstacles. He also "desperately" asked for help from Congress in keeping political bickering away from the census, arguing that "once destroyed, public trust cannot be easily or quickly restored."

Groves may be too late. A number of Latino groups, which traditionally urge illegal immigrants to take part in the census to boost social spending in their areas, are now rallying for a national boycott until comprehensive immigration reform is addressed. "It is a myth and a lie to tell us we need to be counted in order to get money for our communities," says the Rev. Miguel Rivera, head of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which represents 20,000 churches in 34 states. "Our barrios have the worst schools, the worst roads, and the worst medical care and we won't be used as a cash cow for politicians when we get no benefits." The coalition claims it can already guarantee 2.5 million absentees, "and that's a conservative number." The boycott is dividing Hispanic advocacy groups and already prompting concern from state officials worried about losing much-needed funding. Rivera isn't fazed. He expects 5 million absentee guarantees by year's end. He wants states to lose representatives in Congress. "If politicians don't see the need for immigration reform, then we don't need those politicians anyway."

Then there is the conservative blogosphere, which has been questioning the census since Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed that she would not complete her census form. While on Glenn Beck's show, she pointed out that, among other things, census information was used against Japanese-Americans during World War II to round them up in internment camps. "Americans were told they wouldn't have their information used against them. They did." Beck, on the other hand, worried that if he didn't fill out his form, the government might use that "as a loophole" to say he could no longer have a permit for a gun. His concerns seem unfounded, as the census has never been used for verifying gun licenses and Bachmann apparently isn't worried that dodging the census will endanger her Second Amendment rights either. According to her spokeswoman, Bachmann is still only going to answer one question on the form: the number of people living in her household, which she argues is the only response required by the Constitution. In fact, the Constitution says nothing about whether an individual must answer the census, only that Congress must make a count in the manner it sees fit. Under federal law, according to the Census Bureau, she needs to fill out the entire form or risk a $5,000 fine. But the fine is really only a last resort and has rarely been levied. There is at least one documented case. In 1960 future National Review staffer William Rickenbacker refused to complete his form and was convicted after a one-day trial. He was given a suspended 60-day sentence, fined $100, and placed on probation for one day.

The Southeastern Legal Foundation is mailing out fundraising "census protests" that accuse the White House of trying to wrest control of the census from the Commerce Department and put it in the hands of "liberals" who want to manipulate the statistics. The foundation won a landmark Supreme Court case in 1999 that banned statistical sampling for congressional apportionment purposes. "We don't want a Democratic Congress and an activist administration with a hyperpolitical chief of staff pulling any fast ones on the census," says foundation spokesman Todd Young.

A debate in conservative media is whether the census is abusing the Constitution by recording illegal immigrants, a view that lawmakers such as Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who sites on the House Census Committee, dismiss. "Like so much else in our political life, the arguments are now much more extreme," Maloney wrote in recent statement. "For instance, we now have people saying that a settled area of constitutional law, that the census must count every person in the country, is somehow fake." (Web sites like www.mytwocensus.com are hotly tracking all census news, including the constitutional arguments, which have been aired in the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal.)

"Having gone through the 2000 census and seeing what is happening now, I would have to say yes, things are different," Maloney wrote. "Last time around, we had instances such as then-governor George W. Bush suggesting that he wouldn't answer some of the questions on the long form, when the long form was actually in mailboxes. Now we have members of Congress urging people not to participate months and months before the forms even go out."

For the first time, the number of married same-sex couples will be publicly reported. "If the census says they are 'self-reporting' as married that's OK, but if they just say, 'They are married,' then that's a violation of the Defense of Marriage Act," says the Family Research Council's Peter Sprigg. Sprigg is concerned that couples will report as married even when not legally so. Whatever the results are, says census historian Margo Anderson, "The census is a national instrument, and same-sex marriage is only allowed under state laws. This is going to create a wonderful debate on federalism."

For its part, reeling from the debates and now the unusual death of census taker Sparkman, the Census Bureau is desperately trying to stay out of the fray. While the bureau may be no stranger to controversy, it has little experience with violent death. Most census takers who've died on the job were the victims of car crashes or, in one 2000 case, an attack by a pack of dogs. Historian Anderson, of course, knows of countless cases of harassment of census workers, even dating as far back as 1890, when The New York Times reported about a citizen tired of being "catechized" by a census taker, who "grew more angry … until in a white heat he pitched into the servitor of the Government and threw him bodily out of the house, applying abusive epithets to him and insulting him in a manner that was anything but befitting the dignity of the position of the enumerator."

By spring 2010, the bureau will have nearly 700,000 temporary workers in the field to conduct follow-ups with people who didn't fill out their forms. The Census Bureau field-training manual advises employees on everything from walking only in lighted areas to staying away from political issues, especially when someone is hostile: "Do not defend yourself or the government with respondents who say they hate you and all government employees. Indicate that you regret this opinion and express a desire to provide them with a positive experience." Perhaps Bill Sparkman wasn't given the time to follow that sage advice.